Cheltenham Festival: Henry de Bromhead saddling strongest-ever team

Henry De Bromhead
Henry de Bromhead with his winning horse Petit Mouchoir

Henry de Bromhead's ancestry is a colourful one, featuring a secretary to Marie Antoinette, who joined the last Queen of France in meeting a grizzly end under the guillotine's blade.

Also on the family tree is Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead VC, one of the survivors of the unlikely defeat of Zulu warriors by outnumbered British soldiers at Rorke's Drift in 1879 - he was played by Michael Caine in the famous film, Zulu.

It's a story that would surely satisfy producers of the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are? programme, taking us from France to the UK before ending up - via southern Africa - in the calmer landscape of Ireland's County Waterford.

Based at Knockeen, just outside Waterford City where the family's historic Downes Bar is a local pub landmark, the De Bromheads have been part of National Hunt heritage for decades now.

And in 2017, De Bromhead, 44, is due to make his own piece of history by saddling the strongest team of big-race hopefuls he's ever sent to the Cheltenham Festival.

Petit Mouchoir leads the way as one of the major fancies for the Stan James Champion Hurdle; race regular Special Tiara lines up in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase for the fourth time; and Champagne West has galloped his way into the Timico Gold Cup reckoning with successes at Tramore and in the prestigious Thyestes Chase at Gowran Park.

In all, nearly a quarter of the De Bromhead string of 60 or so horses - which is already recording by far its best season - will be mobilised to the Cotswolds for the four-day showpiece.

"Numbers-wise, we're talking about the same as last year," said De Bromhead, "but there's probably a bit more strength in depth this time - I hope."

Henry de Bromhead and Sizing Europe
Henry de Bromhead's training of Sizing Europe brought him success

And that strength, plus the fact he is enjoying such a prolific campaign, is arguably all the more creditable because in August 2016 businessman Alan Potts and his wife Ann, the principal owners at the stables, removed their dozen horses, including Gold Cup hope Sizing John, which joined Jessie Harrington.

It was with the Potts' star Sizing Europe - named 'Sizing' like most of their horses after the mining process for which Alan Potts designs and manufactures equipment - that De Bromhead's career earned early headlines.

However, their departure coincided with extra backing from big-money owners Roger Brookhouse and Ryanair's Michael O'Leary, through his Gigginstown House Stud operation - support which, in O'Leary's case, became greater after a much-publicised split with Willie Mullins over training fees.

"Roger increased his numbers in early July, which was brilliant," said De Bromhead. "And the O'Learys had said they were going to - before the Willie scenario - increase their numbers as well.

"Although you saw the likes of Sizing John and Smashing and Viconte Du Noyer leaving, [Gigginstown's] Sub Lieutenant and [Brookhouse pair] Some Plan and Champagne West, among others, had turned up, which made it easier - though when [Sizing John] drove away that was tough."

In seven Cheltenham Festival appearances, Sizing Europe was twice a winner and twice a runner-up, although it was on his most disappointing run, his first, that expectations had perhaps been highest.

Sent off as something of an Irish 'banker' for the 2008 Champion Hurdle, the horse was all set to play a significant part before dramatically weakening and being all but pulled up by his rider.

As a result, the appearance of Gigginstown's Petit Mouchoir - already the winner of two Grade 1 prizes this season - in the race Sizing Europe famously didn't win has prompted talk of De Bromhead completing 'unfinished business'.

Petit Mouchoir
Petit Mouchoir and jockey David Mullins took top spot in the Irish Champion Hurdle

"Even without the history it's a race you'd love to win, and it's great to get another crack at it," responded the trainer, who describes the grey as being in "great form".

"Identity Thief ran OK in it for us last year [finishing sixth, behind Annie Power] and bar falling at Newcastle this guy [Petit Mouchoir] has done very little wrong this season."

Of Champagne West, who will face rivals including former stablemate Sizing John, plus Cue Card, Native River and Djakadam in the Gold Cup, De Bromhead added: "Going into the Thyestes, I was dreaming he'd go out and win it by eight or 10 lengths and give a display that could mark him as being able to have a go in a Gold Cup, which is what he did.

"I know there were some fairly well-informed guys impressed by him that day, so we'll see."

The Gold Cup looks as competitive as ever, but there's a chance this year's Champion Hurdle is, as they say, "very winnable".

And the prospects of Petit Mouchoir, the French-bred horse with the quaint name - 'small handkerchief' in English - and the Irish trainer with the French history are not to be sniffed at.

The Cheltenham Festival runs March 14 to 17 with extensive coverage on BBC 5 Live and the BBC Sport website